Interactions Afforded By Online Media

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By Max Woerner Chase

In this post:


I recently joined a discussion on Mastodon, where everyone involved realized that, although it has some helpful features and good communities, and isn't going to have The Algorithm, Mastodon still has some of the same affordances that are such a problem on Twitter. After some back-and-forth, I decided that it would probably help to have a comparison the affordances that different services offer/have offered over the years, and to reason about their effects at scale.

So, here's a high-level view of various means of communication. This is limited to services I'm somewhat familiar with, and my own experiences with them. Also, some of the details are probably wrong, because I was prioritizing getting a quick sketch out over complete accuracy in the face of constant software updates.

a simple webpage
barrier to entry:
Has lowered over time
where posts go:
On a single website.
how content is discovered:
Originally, the URL was required to find content, but search engines have automated the process of discovery, so now keyword search is sufficient to browse the surface web.
how may users react:
On its own, static websites don't allow for direct feedback. They may embed or link to some of the other services. Also, one person could publish a webpage in response to another webpage. Email-based contact forms
who sees the reaction when:
In the first case, the feedback characteristics depend on the service used. In the second case, the reaction doesn't relate to the original in a structured way, except that it could contain a link back, which search engines will index. In the third case, the reaction is in the form of an email thread. See below.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
The webpage gets published, updated, and possibly taken down, at the desires of (mostly) the maintainer. The webpage is not updated very quickly, so the consumers can read it at leisure.
email
barrier to entry:
Low
where posts go:
To the specified recipient(s). People can form "mailing lists".
how content is discovered:
Through sharing. Incoming email is often subjected to various forms of algorithmic filtering.
how may users react:
They can reply to specific messages, forward them to other people, or write new messages.
who sees the reaction when:
Reactions are another kind of "post", and are subject to the same controls.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
The writer publishes to a server, which the reader then downloads the message from, and reads at leisure. Counterpoint: many email servers and clients provide notification functionality, which, in terms of user experience, acts as "push". Mailing lists are an early example of the "firehose" effect, in which a single post demands individual attention from many people, which tends to turn into "at least one person has to deal with many posts". The use of automated systems to manage email arguably made this worse in some contexts than Twitter today.
bulletin board
barrier to entry:
Needs email
where posts go:
New topics go in the top-level, or sub-forums. The layout is determined by the forum administrator. Many bulletin boards also include "private message" functionality, which resembles a reduced form of email.
how content is discovered:
The hierarchy of sub-forums guides the user based on which topics they're interested in, and each sub-forum often has a link to the most-recently replied-to topic. The website often provides search functionality.
how may users react:
By posting "replies" to a topic. All posts look almost the same within a topic, but replies aren't visible next to topics at a high level.
who sees the reaction when:
Anyone with access to a sub-forum can read replies within it at leisure. Many bulletin boards offer the ability to "subscribe" to a topic, in order to receive email notifications of replies, on some schedule.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
Topics and replies are published to the central server, which the readers then browse the messages from.
livejournal and similar sites
barrier to entry:
Needs email
where posts go:
On personal journals, or specially created communities. The communities are created by any user who wants.
how content is discovered:
There are various ways to subscribe to content from different sources. I think. I don't really remember how this worked.
how may users react:
Entries have threaded comments
who sees the reaction when:
I believe it's mostly similar to the bulletin board system.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
I believe it's mostly similar to the bulletin board system.
independent blogs
barrier to entry:
similar to that of a simple webpage, depending on how much control you want
where posts go:
On the blog
how content is discovered:
Blogs can offer search engines, tagging, categories.
how may users react:
Some blogging software has commenting modules. Comments are visible below the associated post.
who sees the reaction when:
Comments are public; also, the blog may have a moderation feature that requires someone to explicitly approve some or all comments.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
Again, it pretty much works like bulletin boards.
twitter
barrier to entry:
Needs email
where posts go:
On the personal timeline, on followers' timelines, in the timeline for hashtags, and anywhere else deemed appropriate by The Algorithm. Some posts are only visible in a sub-view. Also offers "direct message" capabilities about on par with some bulletin boards.
how content is discovered:
Users can follow each other to get a subset of their posts. There's also a "list" feature that I've barely engaged with. And search.
how may users react:
The answer to this question changed drastically over time. Twitter is, in some respects, retrofitted on top of its original conception, which didn't anticipate retweets, or, if I'm understanding its original purpose correctly, replies. Users can "reply" to a tweet, or retweet it, or like it.
who sees the reaction when:
"Reply" tweets are (I think) only visible in a follower's timeline if the parent tweet was visible, and they are also following the replier. Or something. Reply tweets are not automatically visible from profile timelines. Retweets are visible from the profile timeline, and in followers' timelines. I don't know how multiple retweets of the same tweet, spread out through time, work. Likes used to just send a notification to the poster of the liked tweet, but now they are Grist For The Algorithm, and cause the liked tweet to appear all over the place, seemingly at random.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
Many, many notifications can be delivered through email, text, or other clients. Compared to the previous entries, it's quite easy to end up with a "firehose" type situation, in which new content enters your feed faster than you can read through it.
facebook
barrier to entry:
I think it needs a phone
where posts go:
You have a "wall", and that's where posts usually go. You can also post in groups. There are a bunch of privacy settings that apparently are never set how you want them to be, even immediately after you try to fix them.
how content is discovered:
It used to be about chronological feeds and such, but The Algorithm made sure we don't have to deal with that nonsense. And search.
how may users react:
A single "like" button has turned into a variety of emotional reactions. Posts can be commented on, with threading.
who sees the reaction when:
There are some really pushy emails that I eventually turned off, years ago.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
I assume that the mobile clients have push notifications, and maybe through the web as well. Also susceptible to "firehose".
tumblr
barrier to entry:
Needs email
where posts go:
On the personal blog, or a side-blog. Posts have tags, which cause the post to appear in the stream for that tag.
how content is discovered:
Content is visible through a blog's subdomain, and users can subscribe to blogs, and I think tags. And search.
how may users react:
There is a "like" feature, which is thankfully somewhat more restrained than Twitter's. Somewhat confusingly, there's both "reply" and "reblog". "Reblog" is a new post, "reply" is not.
who sees the reaction when:
Reblogs are exactly as visible as normal posts. Replies send a message to... the original poster? I think? and are also visible in the notes if you try really hard.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
I assume there are various ways to get notifications, but I turned most of them off. Also susceptible to "firehose".
reddit
barrier to entry:
Needs email
where posts go:
In a pre-selected sub-reddit. The sub-reddits are created by any user who wants.
how content is discovered:
Users can manage their subscriptions to sub-reddits. There are "top posts" for both the site as a whole and subscribed sub-reddits.
how may users react:
Topics can be replied to with threaded comments. Topics and comments have upvote/downvote arrows that are supposed to rate the content on relevance and constructiveness. In practice, they've been griefed so much that they require obfuscation to avoid vote manipulation. Some sub-reddits have bot users that can publicize stuff like links from other sub-reddits.
who sees the reaction when:
The original poster gets informed of replies, and I think there's similar logic for threaded replies. It's supposed to be hard to tell when a post got a vote.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
It pretty much works like bulletin boards.
disqus
barrier:
Needs email
where posts go:
disqus is a service that adds commenting functionality to other websites. The comments are threaded.
how content is discovered:
A user's comments are visible through their profile, but mostly, the comments are mainly going to be seen from the associated entry.
how may users react:
I think there's a voting system.
who sees the reaction when:
Like a lot of services, notifications go to the original poster and the person who got replied to.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
I don't know when disqus becomes aware of the original post, but all comments go to, and are served from, the disqus servers.
google plus
barrier:
Needs Google account
where posts go:
On the personal feed, or within personally curated "circles".
how content is discovered:
Posts to circles are visible to the people in those circles, and I assume there's some kind of Algorithmic Curation to filter down the public posts based on who's looking.
how may users react:
They can "+1" stuff, and comment on posts. G+ got shoved into YouTube somehow, so I assume there's some form of comment threading.
who sees the reaction when:
I believe it's the typical "notification to poster" thing.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
It's like bulletin boards.
wave
barrier to entry:
Needed Google account back in the day, now I have no idea Nobody pointed this out to me, but I just checked the incubator page, and "The Wave project retired on 2018-01-15", probably to nobody's great surprise.
where posts go:
... Like... anywhere. I think. I don't know. Thread replies to a threaded reply, start up a game of checkers in the comments. Wave is very hard to reason about.
how content is discovered:
I actually have no recollection of what caused me to be aware of any given post.
how may users react:
Reply to everything. Edit everything in real-time. It's bonkers.
who sees the reaction when:
Everyone sees everything simultaneously, then all their laptops overheat at once.
what is "push" and what is "pull":
Keystrokes are streamed to and from the server in real time.

With regards to the last one, I'd like to point out this evergreen tweet.

In any case, a lot of these platforms have launched harassment campaigns. Someone attempting to design a platform around reducing online harassment has to figure out two things:

Notes from looking over the above:

One possible way to handle retweet functionality would be to make it function explicitly as endorsements. Have the moderation for a bad retweet assign "fractional strikes" for infractions, to everyone who retweets, according to a PageRank score or something.


One strength of social media that came up in the discussion was:

I'd treat talking on socnets like talking in the hall - anyone can just come by and join the discussion.

If you want a private conversation, there are DMs, chatrooms, etc.

https://niu.moe/@Wolf480pl

To promote that functionality, perhaps "conversation" should be the first-class citizen of the site? I can take that in all sorts of directions, but I think the main question should be, how do the users' affordances interact at scale.

So, a User can start a Conversation. Perhaps it has a Title, or a Tagline. Any User in a Conversation should be able to make a Comment. How are Conversations to be discovered? I could imagine a tumblr-style Tag system, except that the Tags apply to the Conversation as a whole, and Users can Vote, not on the "worth" of a Conversation or Comment, but how well a Tag applies to the Conversation. And when a User Comments in a Conversation, that Conversation should appear in their Profile.

Suppose a new Conversation can have a Title of at most 500 Characters (whatever those are!), and then an optional initial Comment. I don't know whether we'd want Comments to have a length limit. I'd want to put the reactions on like a 3-state toggle:

This overall concept is not even all the way to "half-baked", so I don't have any confidence yet that it would fulfill the first goal.

I've been really down on The Algorithm over the course of this post, but perhaps algorithmic stuff could deliver value in the form of suggested courses of action; there does need to be some way to deal with spam.

Actually, I don't want to slot this into my rotation, but you know what would be really cool if it didn't already exist? High-level modeling of social dynamics given different interacting websites. Like, model the content of a social network in terms of the content's call-to-action, and look at the outcomes of different forms of discoverability.

There are various ways to try to mediate the effects of dogpiling. The Conversation idea would collect all Comments on a single page, and the natural place to put the reply box would be under the rest of the Comments. Perhaps the reply form could display the number of unread Comments above. Like, not stopping them, but just letting them know that there are 500 comments they haven't bothered to look at, or whatever.

Possibly, there'd be some way to incorporate G+'s circles concept, be the one in control of who your participation gets publicized to. I'm kind of down on the follower model, when I think about it, but I'm not really sure what I'd like instead, if anything.

(Also, I was trying to work a crack in there about how, if you have a time machine, you can play Angry Birds on Google Plus.)

I never know how to end these.

Everything after this is from the May 29 update or later:

Wolf480pl reacts shortly after I finally posted the link:

Judging by my own experience with Masto, the most interesting interactions often look like that: A posts an idea or opinion. B boosts it, I follow B so I see it. I reply, mentioning both A and B. Discussion ensues. I reply with a conclusion. People fav/boost it because they agree with it. I boost it, because it's a good thought on its own, and I want to spread it - the fruit of the discussion - to as many people as reasonable.

...

I think it's important to be able to collapse a part of the discussion, put the conclusion in front, and then endorse it.

...

maybe a self-boost should be treated differently.

...

Maybe only people approved (followed/friended?) by you should be able to boost your posts? Maybe every boost should be manually approved by it's author? Or maybe there boostability should be a per-post option?

...

Maybe posts should be un-boostable by default, but once I approve a single boost, everyone can boost them?

https://niu.moe/@Wolf480pl

My initial reactions are "this sounds promising" and "my proposal up there does not obviously support some of this". Like, maybe if it's possible to call out posts as significant within the context of a Conversation? I don't think that's quite right. Like, within the framework of my proposal, a "Featured Comment" would have to be some form of start to a Conversation? This would work out something like:

This is just my very early thoughts on this, so I'm going to put this out there, then think about it more.